WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Vice President Joe Biden pressed Iraq’s leaders in a series of telephone calls on Saturday to break a deadlock that has stalled preparations for an election seen as critical for U.S. troops to withdraw, U.S. officials said.
A senior U.S. administration official said Washington was hopeful a tentative deal on Iraq’s election law would allow a national vote to be held and for a new parliament to be elected and seated by March 15, when the term of the current assembly is due to expire.
Biden serves as President Barack Obama’s point man on Iraq.
Iraqi officials are working to secure final approval of the deal from Shi’ite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish political factions, the administration official said. Iraq’s government is led by the country’s majority Shi’ites. The minority Sunnis had controlled Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. “The U.S. role, both on the ground and via (the) vice president, is to encourage, to bridge build, and to serve as a friendly witness to the negotiations,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Biden traveled to Iraq in September, his second trip in three months. He has sought to cajole Iraq’s feuding leaders to compromise on sticking points including the election law. He is due to visit Iraq again before the end of the year.
The White House said in a statement that Biden commended Iraqi leaders in Saturday’s telephone calls for “finding a solution to the election law impasse.”
“He encouraged them to finalize an arrangement that would be fair to all sides and that would allow national elections, as desired by the Iraqi people and as outlined in Iraq’s constitution,” the White House said.
The White House did not identify the Iraqi leaders to whom Biden spoke.
The current crisis was sparked by Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, one of three members of a presidential council with the power to veto legislation, who rejected an initial electoral law that parliament had spent weeks negotiating. He complained that the law did not give enough of a voice to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled abroad during the fighting. Many are Sunnis, as is Hashemi.
Hashemi’s office said on Thursday he was less likely to veto the preliminary agreement reached with political parties, the Shi’ite-led government and electoral authorities.
The election is a milestone for Iraq as it emerges from years of sectarian violence that followed the 2003 invasion. It also comes as the United States seeks to meet a deadline at the end of August 2010 to withdraw its combat troops.
Obama has promised Americans he will end U.S. involvement in the Iraq war at the end of 2011. He also has said he hopes that financial savings from winding down the war will help to reduce the size of the $1.4 trillion U.S. deficit. There were fears that an election delay could force Washington to alter its troop withdrawal timetable, but U.S. officials have made clear that is highly unlikely.
While Iraq originally planned to hold the election in January, the U.S. official said this was not mandatory and that the key date was March 15.
Biden, who has sought to build on close relations he developed with several of Iraq’s leaders when he was a U.S. senator, has held a number of telephone conversations with them in recent months.